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11:27 PM
Johannah Rodgers
Johannah Rodgers
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Broadening Vision

Michael Connolly fosters a creative and ambitious approach to the possibilities of technology at Aetna to improve the quality and cost of healthcare.

When asked if business strategy drives technology initiatives or if technology initiatives drive business strategy, Michael Connolly's answer is crystal clear: both. As chief technology officer and head of strategy, technology and architecture at Aetna (Hartford), Connolly's ability to think strategically about both business and technology is exactly what allows him to excel in his unique role in the company.

"My background blends both technology and business, and has always had a good balance between thinking strategically and thinking practically," he says. "That is my role at Aetna. I am responsible for IT strategy, and focused on driving IT strategy to converge with our underlying business strategy. As CTO, I help define IT strategy from an enterprise and business unit perspective and translate those strategies into actionable plans and results."

With more than 20 years of IT consulting experience, including two years in which Aetna was a client, Connolly joined the insurer's technology management team in 2004, seeking new challenges for himself and bringing a new perspective to the company's technology initiatives. "I think I was brought in from outside to help Aetna go beyond its current technology frame, and to get to more aspirational topics," Connolly explains. "Even while we make lots of investments for improving existing processes, our new technology projects are all about the larger business vision of improving the quality and cost of care."

Connolly describes one of the key challenges facing the healthcare industry in general, and Aetna in particular, as finding a balance between "near-term needs and longer-term architectural strategic investments." In the business of healthcare, Connolly explains, "There are a lot of players and lots of connections, which means that in the area of coordinated data exchange, there are both great challenges and great opportunities."

Transactional Efficiency

Drawing on his significant background in both healthcare and financial services, Connolly thinks about the numerous points of information exchange in the healthcare value chain as transactions. "Our focus is to realize transactional efficiency between various parties - providers, institutions, payers, consumers - using a straight-through processing model as a goal," he says.

The potential benefits of transactional efficiency, according to Connolly, are wide-ranging. "By getting closer to a true STP model, we're looking to get products to market faster, lower costs and get better at creating consumer-directed products, to ultimately improve not only our quality of service, but the quality of care."

Tasked with working at both the system architecture and project level, Connolly has a unique perspective on how Aetna's information assets can be leveraged and used strategically. "We may, today, provide large bodies of data, but we don't make them actionable," he says. "Given the data we have, how can we help leverage information to get the best quality of care at the lowest cost? We are working on that - for providers, for members and for sponsors," he continues. "We want to get the right data to the right people at the right point in time."

Fortunately, Connolly says, "Many of the technologies exist today to realize these goals." He explains that the challenge is getting them to work together. "What you will see is how to wire those technologies together in an actionable ecosystem." To build this ecosystem, Connolly has been pursuing a "prudent multisourcing strategy to take advantage of our internal resources, while working with a few key technology partners." Having been commended for his ability to manage and work with key partners, Connolly sees these relationships as offering support for project architecture and project management.

Specific solutions that will be used to leverage what Connolly calls "Aetna's significant informatics capability" include both data warehouses and rules- and expert-based systems. In terms of information delivery, Connolly plans to use "the channels of choice: Web, phone, EDI."

Information Is Power

With projects in the pipeline to improve information delivery at every point in the healthcare value chain, one initiative that is already underway delivers information to consumers to improve their ability to manage and plan healthcare costs. Accessible through the Aetna Navigator Web portal, the "Estimate the Cost of Care" suite of tools provides an interactive means to view cost information related to a range of services, including prescription drugs, medical tests and various medical and dental procedures. The tool also provides a comparison of estimated average in- and out-of-network costs.

While this suite of tools is just one example of the way in which information can be "used in a more heuristic manner to help people better manage medical costs," according to Connolly, he ultimately sees this as one piece of the overall strategic vision for Aetna. "We have a management team here that has a significant commitment and involvement in having technology support business strategy," explains Connolly. "To that end, we are getting information out to people so they can not only look at costs, but options for care, and, ultimately, change the way in which decisions are made at the point of care."

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